Sunday, July 13, 2003

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf: A Review

Memory and its potency haunt the pages of Virginia Woolf's 1927 novel To the Lighthouse, the successor both chronologically and--it appears--thematically to Mrs Dalloway (1925).

Yet, while sexuality appears at the foreground of Mrs Dalloway--so much so that it is small wonder how Michael Cunningham produced the wonder that is The Hours--here sexuality subtlely simmers below the novel's surface.

In all her works, Woolf proves to be a keen observer of human behaviour. To the Lighthouse is no different. It deftly explores the passions and contradictions which are at the heart of every human relationship. The mind of each narrator flits from present to past and back, every moment, every remembrance coloured through retrospection by his or her current temperament. The narrative voices are never anything but wholly believable.

Yet, the psychic reality of this novel could have been compromised easily had Woolf's style been any different. Fortunately, her seemingly effortless stream-of-consciousness is the perfect mode of expression for her story.

Though rightly one of Woolf's most highly praised novels, To the Lighthouse is not perfect. Its sole failing is in that area where Mrs Dalloway excels: in its treatment of time. The expression of time and timelessness, while conveyed here, is not as decisive as it could be because of the novel's scope. Whereas Mrs Dalloway unfolds during the course of a single day (a premise seen earlier in the James Joyce opus Ulysses (1922)), To the Lighthouse is divided into three parts--the first accounting a single day; the second, the passing of time; and the third, a single day ten years after the first. While this appears--in theory--to be an ideal way to treat timelessness, it causes the narrative to drag at times, lessening the impact Woolf's writing usually has upon her readers' moods.

That is not to say that Woolf is unsuccessful; she still manages to convey what she sets out to. And while To the Lighthouse may not be her most accomplished novel, it is nonetheless a strong successor to Mrs Dalloway and a fitting exercise of Virginia Woolf's considerable talent.

No comments: